Self-Editing Series: How to Assess Pacing

Pacing is an important part of a functioning manuscript.

Good prose, great characters, even a working plot can all be in place, but if the story is rushed or too slow… readers will lose attention.

There are two ways to check the pacing of your story. To simplify the process, we are going to use the terms Macro Pacing for the large scale pacing on the manuscript as a whole unit and Micro Pacing for the smaller scale page level edits.

NOTE: Part of today’s self-editing topic requires familiarity with plotting techniques that are heavily used in the process for outliners. However, checking the pacing of your novel does not require you to have one. It merely requires the manuscript.

For your convenience, we have provided worksheets that will make this process easier. You will find them below the next section.

Macro Pacing: 

Do you know where the First Pillar of your story should fall? The Midpoint? And what in the world are pinch points?

It is true that some writers don’t like feeling like their story must fit into a ‘write by numbers’ formula, but this is a guide. It’s meant to help you. It does not exist to stifle your creativity.

For example: If you have Critique Partners or Beta Readers telling you that your story is dragging, or moving so fast they simply couldn’t keep up…etc. the structure is the special key to fix that!

These points mainly apply to writers who are using general narrative formats. While there are many, let’s focus on the most popular style guide for short stories (and western fiction in general): Three-Act Structure. (As a graphic you can save for your referencing ease.)

You can use the above points to check your manuscript’s pacing by applying a few percentages. These percentages are not made up but found from delving into screen-writing and literature to mark the perfect places for the above-mentioned points/moments to fall for impactful stories. There is math involved, but I promise you it’s just plugging stuff into a formula, getting the answer, and then scrolling (if you are on a digital device) through your manuscript.

Act One is the first 25%.

Act Two is 26%-75%.

Act Three is 75%-100%

To check your pacing, simply plug your overall page count (or word count) into the following formula.

If my short story is fifteen pages long, and I need to check that my Act One ends in the proper place, all I have to do is the following:

OverallCount x 0.25 = End of Act One

15 x 0.25 = 3.75

That means my Act One should conclude, meaning that I have everything set up and ready to roll into the next act, on/around page 4 of the manuscript.

If by page 4 everything is set up and my two main points are in place, then I know that Act One’s pacing is good. However, if there is an issue, then I will know what needs my attention.

If the section is too long, I can search back over the elements to see if I have included any superfluous information.

If the section is too short, then I will know that I need to make sure that I have included all necessary information.

Here are the worksheets we have created to make this process easier for you:

Micro Pacing:

In what we are going to call “micro pacing,” we are going to cover a few “small” aspects of a manuscript that can hinder the pacing. Hooks, sentence length, and point-of-view.


Tasty points of intrigue that are intended to have the reader salivating. They are unable to put the story down because they have to know what comes next. These are not things that are contrived or made up; they should already be in the story.

Think of these visually. Have you noticed in TV shows that something intentionally vague or surprising happens before the commercial rolls in? Scriptwriters do this on purpose! You should too. Control your readers’ experiences by planting hooks before your scene breaks. If your scene has ended on a note that feels like a present with a prettily tied bow, the manuscript should be ending.

Dwight Swain, an Oklahoma Writing Hall of Fame inductee, screenwriting documentary pioneer, and author explained the format of a scene as follows: Goal, conflict, disaster.

Goal: The character wants something.

Conflict: Something is pushing back against the character from achieving their goal.

Disaster: Something happens to stop the character from achieving their goal.

Disaster does not mean an apocalypse, or death, per se, but it does mean that if the story hasn’t been resolved the character should still have a need.

Ex: Maybe the protagonists succeeded in getting the silver to stop the werewolves, but all that was available was a silver dagger…and now they’ve got to decide who is going to be the lamb that allows the others a chance at escape.

Without a hook, the pacing, tension, and the story overall can drag because the character wasn’t in a state of ‘need’. If your character is always supplied with everything easily and has no hard choices to make, go back to the lesson on Character to better assess the internal and external conflict.

Bonus Tip:
Giving your story a hook does NOT mean that you should be giving the story over-maxed conflict. There are definitely times that a character should be allowed to breathe, or else, your story may come across as angsty and melodramatic.

Sentence Length:

Beware of purple prose, or excessive detail, where you can wax on a bit too long of the seemingly more poetic aspects of your story. Even if more dramatic language might be serviceable in a particular scene, try to contain it. Use it wisely. The writer can easily, and subconsciously, drag on with consecutive long sentences, and these run-ons can slow the pacing down because they simply take forever to read.

In other words, use varying lengths of sentences, not just long, drug out one. Short sentences are okay; short paragraphs are also a nice way to break up consecutive long ones. By varying your sentence length, you create unique pacing and keep reader interest.

The details may seem pretty, but tightening a story can be one of the hardest parts next to actually writing it. Do you need that adjective, adverb, prepositional phrase? Your pacing of the events themselves may be spot on if you cut unnecessary words, which in turn can create varying lengths of sentences – sometimes, quickening the pace where, otherwise, it was too slow.

Point of view:

How can Point of View hinder your pacing? Easily. It’s actually a concept known as ‘navel gazing’. With this pace-hindering element, the manuscript spends too much time in the narrator’s head and thoughts and feelings.

It is easiest to do this in certain deep POVs such as Third Limited, or First.

If you are using a deep POV, make sure each thought and feeling is necessary and fits with the cause and effect, or the action and reaction of the story. If the internal narration does not advance the plot, cut it.

It is also possible to do the exact opposite of this and forget to include enough detail on the character’s thoughts/feelings to rationalize why they are making certain decisions. This lack of detail can lead to a story that reads as plot-plot-plot with no emotional pull to keep your readers grounded in the story.

Here is a worksheet we have created to help you work through the macro and micro pacing elements in your manuscript.

What’s the Next Topic?

World-building is not just for long epics. It’s for any story you write – in any genre. Place, which is setting and thus world, should have an impact on your characters. However, putting too much (or too little!) can be detrimental to the success of your story. We’ll be covering how to make sure that you haven’t put too many details in your descriptions while ensuring you’ve included enough. See you next week!

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